Raw Deal

In the dairy sector an old paradox still applies — we consumers buy cheese for purely hedonistic reasons, but find it is banned on nutritional or safety grounds. The main driving force is the Food and Drug Administration, the US government agency responsible for regulating food safety.

At the end of 2006 the FDA posted a notice on its website with the self-explanatory title: The danger of raw milk. It was nothing new of course: every so often the issue of pasteurization gets another airing in the US and English-speaking countries, probably because this seems the easiest and most painless way to alleviate the damaging effects of a diet which, particularly in the US, causes serious harm.

What is surprising and of concern is that this is happening while research in recent years has shown — this will be discussed on the occasion of Cheese, being held in Bra from September 21 to 24, 2007 — that not only are the risks of raw milk no greater than those of pasteurized products but pasteurization actually has adverse effects on food safety and lowers quality.

The FDA excludes well-aged and hard raw milk cheeses from its list as their safety has been amply demonstrated. Instead it refers to all soft cheeses, adding that pasteurization has no effect on the nutritional quality of milk. This is not true. Even a fairly unobservant consumer knows that pasteurization has a significant effect on the flavor of cheese.

Pasteurized cheeses have much less complexity than raw milk cheeses and their flavor is often described as “bland”. But the most controversial issue is the question of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that is particularly dangerous for people in precarious health. It is claimed that Listeria is eliminated by pasteurization.

It has been shown, however, that the growth of this bacterium is twice as slow in raw milk cheeses as in pasteurized cheeses, because raw milk contains lactoperoxidases, enzymes that inhibit the growth of bacteria. What was written in Bulletin no.369 of the International Dairy Federation in 2001 remains valid: ‘there are no data to indicate that mandatory pasteurization would lead to greater safety of milk and dairy products’.

First printed in La Stampa on June 3, 2007

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